Saturday, November 21, 2009

Senator Byrd's Milestone

Yesterday was the 92nd birthday of Senator Robert C. Byrd (R-West Virginia), but his 92nd birthday came second to another great milestone in his life celebrated earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, Senator Byrd became the longest serving member of the United States Congress in history. Byrd, who has served in both houses of the West Virginia legislature and both houses of the U.S. Congress, took the opportunity to discuss some of the most memorable votes he has cast in the United States Senate where he has served since 1959. I was impressed by Senator Byrd's humility as he admitted in his statement that he had been on the wrong side of history, voting against the Democratic legislation that created Medicare in. I was reminded of his greatest speech and what must be one of his greatest votes--that against the invasion of Iraq. And I was reminded of the fragility of life, that this man who is the first in history to serve a half century in the United States Senate uninterrupted, is so frail in body, but still so determined in his soul as he participates in the historic vote this evening on health care reform.

Senator Byrd's speech on the floor after a great deal of praise from his fellow senators can be found on C-SPAN's website, but a shortened version of his remarks on Wednesday's milestone appeared on his website and reads as follows:
"I am so deeply grateful to the people of the great State of West Virginia for demonstrating such confidence in me and enabling me to reach this momentous milestone. My only regret is that my beloved wife, companion and confidant, my dear Erma, is not here with me to witness this wonderful day. I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying congratulations my dear Robert -- but don’t let it go to your head.”

“Although we are marking a longevity milestone, it has been the quality and dedication of service that has guided me over the years. I have strived to provide the people of West Virginia the best representation possible each of the 20,774 days which I have served in the Congress of the United States. From the bottom of my heart I thank each and every West Virginian for the support they have given me during this time, and for putting their trust and faith in me.”

“The only way for me to close on this historic day is to say that I look forward to serving you for the next 56 years and 320 days! Thank you and may God bless you.”

Senator Byrd still has his humor, his encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate (being the only sitting senator to write an exhaustive history of that body), and the utmost respect of his colleagues. As Senator Leahy said as Senator Rockefeller came to the floor to introduce the bill honoring Byrd, Byrd has been a friend to every member of the Senate and for Leahy doing so for thirty-four years.

As I said before, Senator Byrd has reminded me of the fragility of human life. This year was the first in many, many years of Senator Byrd's esteemed tenure in the Senate that he has not taken the floor on Constitution Day to give a speech about the importance, sacred nature and absolute respect required for the United States Constitution. Constitution Day just didn't feel the same without the stoic senator taking to the floor with his pocket Constitution, waving his arms about, and speaking in that large voice. When Bob Byrd is no longer here to take to the floor to speak of the tradition of the Senate, I can't help but wonder who might fill that role. Historians aren't often elected to the Senate, which is perhaps why the foster son of a West Virginia coal miner became just as likely as any other member to take upon himself the role he has.

It is too bad that Senator Byrd's wife couldn't be there Wednesday for the milestone. It is also too bad, despite his politics and recent troubles, that former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) couldn't be there to congratulate his good friend. We have for decades watched Stevens, Byrd, and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) portray a friendship above ideology forged in common service to the American people.

The United States Senate has seen a great deal of change in the last year. Three members of the Senate left to join the administration, one as the head of the executive branch. One member changed parties. Senator Ted Kennedy, the true lion of the Senate, passed and left shoes that no Democrat will ever fill. The Senate may not look as it once did through the eyes of Senator Byrd, but Senator Byrd is now, more so because of this milestone, still deeply respected in the eyes of his Senate colleagues and this blogger.

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